Donlan, Speroff follow in Belbin's step sequences

Yankowskas, Reagan put in 10-hour days; Castelli, Shnapir make peace

Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff attended their first Champs Camp together in 2012.
Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff attended their first Champs Camp together in 2012. (Renee Felton)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(08/30/2012) - Skating together just five months, Caitlin Yankowskas and Joshua Reagan are discovering what works best for them.

It's not too surprising, then, that the short program the team performed to Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé at Champs Camp last week was only a few weeks old. Their original music, Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez," was jettisoned after Skate Detroit in late July.

"We actually switched up the music after kind of a sour performance," Yankowskas, 22, said. "We thought we needed something a little more uplifting, more unique, a little more us. And Daphnis et Chloé is perfect -- at least we think so -- and hopefully the judges will as well."

They are even more enthusiastic about their free skate to Puccini's Madame Butterfly.

"It's a lovely piece: very romantic, very us," Yankowskas said. "The music gives you chills when we hit all our elements. It is so very heartfelt, and we can really tell a story."

"I think the long [will be] our bread and butter, once it's trained and built up a little more, hopefully by nationals," Reagan, 22, said.

A new short wasn't the only change after Skate Detroit. The skaters sat down with their coaches -- including Johnny Johns, Marina Zoueva (also their choreographer) and David Kirby, who acts as a consultant -- and made a plan to ramp up their training at the Arctic Edge in Canton, Mich. They also spent a week with Kirby in Texas.

"Our coaches said, 'We don't want you guys to be out there giving 80 or 90 percent; we want you giving 110 percent,' and so they completely re-worked our schedule," Reagan said. "We are at the rink, like, 10 hours a day now ... It's been less than a month and we're completely different, I think."

"We've really started to gel as a team," Yankowskas said. "The more hours we put in, the more hard work we put in, the faster, greater success we will have."

Yankowskas and Reagan both made their marks with their prior partners. Yankowskas won the 2011 U.S. title and placed sixth at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships with John Coughlin, while Reagan is the 2011 U.S. junior champion with Ashley Cain.

Maybe that's why Zoueva, who coached two-time Olympic pairs champions Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov to Olympic gold in 1994 before devoting herself primarily to ice dance, feels free to dish out a little tough love.

"We did a clean short the other day and we came back over to the boards smiling, and she just said, 'OK, do your long,'" Reagan said.

"She didn't say anything to us. She was just, 'Eh,'" Yankowskas said. "But that's good; it's what we need. It motivates us to kick butt."

Despite the long hours, the team's coaches aren't rushing things. His sore back, Reagan said, has limited practice on the lifts and triple twist, but they're picking up the pace now. Other elements are progressing as well.

"Our throws have gotten so much better," Yankowskas said. "We're doing [triple] loop in the short, and loop and Salchow in the long. We might fiddle around with flip and Lutz some time, which will be fun."

"Johnny, Marina and David started us slow," Reagan said. "For [the first] month or month and a half, it was really just getting in shape. Obviously, we want to be successful this year, but next year is when we want to have our biggest splash, even if it means not doing as much right now [in order to be] better later on."

Yankowskas and Reagan are assigned to Cup of China and NHK Trophy. Then, despite their well-reasoned plan to make their big splash next season, they are looking forward to strong performances at the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

"If we can show up prepared and skate two solid beautiful programs the way we can, then anything can happen," Yankowskas said.

Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff were fourth at the 2012 U.S. Championships, but after a few pairs split during the offseason, they're the second-ranked team left standing.

"I haven't really thought about it until actually this week, when [other skaters] said, 'Wow, you're number two,'" Donlan, 18, said. "And I'm like, I guess so. OK, it's not too much pressure. We don't tend to pay attention to what other teams do; we just go about our business."

"I have really understood the benefits with Gretchen of weathering the storm, staying with it through the ups and downs, gaining experience," Speroff, 24, said. "She will be my longest partner I've ever had now. I've always known she's it -- I just knew -- so it makes the ups and downs easier. That's our journey. Hopefully, we will get there."

This summer, the team -- paired by Bobby Martin in 2009 -- worked with five-time U.S. ice dance champion Tanith Belbin, who visited Skating Club of Boston to help refine their footwork sequences.

"Tanith did the step sequences for three of our teams, Gretchen and Andrew being one of them, and she was wonderful to work with," said Carrie Wall, who coaches with Martin, at the Indy Pairs Challenge earlier this month. "She lent her eye to the character of the program (a short to "Nocturne" from The Lady Caliph) and sort of developed a little storyline for them. She was incredibly helpful, extremely professional and just a huge asset to Bobby and I and our program in Boston."

She was also tough to keep up with.

"She was just skating circles around everybody," Donlan said. "She would say, 'Let's just try this,' and start moving her body and doing all these things, and I'd be like, 'Come again?'"

Belbin, along with Martin, Wall and Sheryl Franks, also worked to add more intricate transitions and new steps to the team's free, set to Sleeping Beauty. After gaining positive feedback on the programs at Champs Camp, the skaters plan to do as many repetitions as possible before their season's international debut at Nebelhorn Trophy on Sept. 27-29. They will also compete at Skate America.

"We're definitely going to do the run-throughs, go from element to element and try to make the transitions as smooth as possible," Donlan said. "We still have to work on the places [where] we have to look at each other and the overall emotion."

Donlan and Speroff's training partners, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, will join them at Skate America and will also compete at NHK Trophy. The two skaters were born on the same date, Aug. 20, but haven't always shared a harmonious relationship.

"We're known as 'The Fighters,'" Castelli, 22, said. The team, fifth at the 2012 U.S. Championships, entered this season determined to make some big changes.

"We wanted to come back this year as a new team," Shnapir, 25, said. "We've done something totally, radically different. This is the new Marissa and Simon ... We're working great together; we've been on a great run."

"We hit rock bottom first, and then from there, we finally knew we had to fix something," Castelli said. "We said we want to be the best skaters we can be this year, and we're not going to [settle] for anything less ... What we did differently [was set] small goals, things we can achieve on a daily or weekly basis. We just go, 'What do we want to do day to day and the best way we can do it together?' I think we really bonded over that."

The skaters traveled to Montreal this summer, where Julie Marcotte gave them two new programs: a sexy, playful short to "Stray Cat Strut" and Pink Panther, and a sophisticated Tango free.

"We're excited about both programs, especially the Tango; it's just going to take some time to mature and develop," Castelli said. "We're working so much harder on the ice. We worked with Julie and we're working more [on singles skating skills] with Mark Mitchell."

"I'm proud of both of them and thrilled with how they are working and skating," Martin said. "I think they look strong and confident; we just have to make these programs work for them now, do some small little things."

For Caydee Denney and Coughlin, success this season could be spelled P-C-S.

"If you look at some of our big events last season, we were at the top, or near the top, in technical elements," Coughlin, 26, said. "Our program components (PCS) have to match or near match that. Thankfully, we picked music we enjoy skating to so much, it makes the hard work we are doing on our components easier."

The U.S. champions traveled to Detroit Skating Club this spring and summer to have Pasquale Camerlengo choreograph their short to a medley from Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Swing Kids, and their free to Phantom of the Opera.

"These are my favorite programs I've ever had, and not just the long; we really enjoy performing the short, too," Coughlin said.

"[The short] is like a sprint to the finish. Even in practice every day, I never get bored with it," Denney, 19, said. "I think, from an audience standpoint, they're really going to enjoy seeing something so upbeat."

As for the free, Coughlin said, "It's strong, and it gives us a chance to highlight what we do well. It's very commanding; it feels like something we can relate to."

The skaters, who are coached by Dalilah Sappenfield and Larry Ibarra in Colorado Springs, also spend time working with modern dance specialist Kathy Johnson to ensure their movements embrace the phrasing of the music.

"I think that both of us have a good feel for music inside, and for us, it's really about making sure our movements match what we're trying to say," Coughlin said.

After solid performances early last season, Tiffany Vise and Don Baldwin were disappointed with their ninth-place finish at the 2012 U.S. Championships.

"It would be hard to end our career on a bad note, so we decided to do another year and take it season by season," Vise, 26, said.

"We want to end on a good note, and we're confident we can do better than we did last year at nationals," Baldwin, 34, said.

To help ensure a better finish, the skaters are adding challenging new elements to their programs, including throw triple Lutz, side-by-side triple flips and a reverse lasso lift in their free skate.

"We want to progress; we want to have something that differentiates us from other people," Baldwin said.

Lindsay Davis and Mark Ladwig's short, choreographed by Cindy Stuart to the Piano Guys' instrumental version of OneRepublic's "Secrets," has special meaning to the new pair, who teamed up this spring.

"Even though it says secrets, it's about trust," Ladwig, 32, said. "We twisted it to fit our particular take on it. As a new partnership, there is a lot of trust [involved]. We have a difficult entry to the lift, which [Davis] trusts me and trust in each other, throughout all of the elements."

Ladwig and his previous partner, Amanda Evora, were well known for their spectacular lifts, one of which received the highest score for a single element at the 2010 Olympics.

"Doing the lifts with Mark is definitely a different experience," said the 20-year-old Davis, who placed eighth at the 2011 U.S. Championships with Themi Leftheris. "Coming up with new things, working on bumping up the difficulty of everything, is a lot of fun."

The skaters, who teamed up this spring, had a solid showing at the Indy Pairs Challenge early this month, hitting side-by-side triple Salchows, a triple twist and other key elements.

"I planned [to compete through 2014] and I had two years left," Ladwig said. "I knew physically I would be OK [to skate] if I wanted to, and when the opportunity came with Lindsay, I wanted to. I think we have the opportunity to do well on the national and, hopefully, the international scene.

"A pair is a partnership and the partner I find in Lindsay is an amazing person both on and off the ice, and that was my benchmark of my previous partner and why we lasted ... I have a lot of experience, Lindsay has a lot of experience, and we're combining the best of our worlds to make something that's new."

Davis and Ladwig will compete at Skate Canada and NHK Trophy this fall, making Ladwig one of the few skaters who will have competed at all six Grand Prix events.